Only truth will combat PR stereotypes

Recently, the Arthur W. Page Society published its first book, Building Trust, Leading CEOs Speak Out: How they Create It, Strengthen It and Sustain It.

Recently, the Arthur W. Page Society published its first book, Building Trust, Leading CEOs Speak Out: How they Create It, Strengthen It and Sustain It.

The book contains essays from 23 leading CEOs on issues that relate directly to the Page Principles, including telling the truth, proving it with action, and managing for the future. The book has been well received and has made it onto some 2004 lists of "Best Books for PR Pros."

While this is gratifying, I have encountered another side to the story. As Society president, I've been interviewed on several radio talk shows as part of the book-promotion activity. These interviews have been straightforward for the most part.

Many of the interviewers have seemed genuinely interested in hearing a positive portrayal of how corporate leaders grapple with issues of trust in the business world. But in many such encounters, mostly in drive-time talk-radio slots, the interviewers have been more than surprised that an organization made up of corporate communications and PR leaders would have the nerve to publish a book with the word "trust" in its title. They feel PR is about anything but truth and transparency, and have espoused the common view that PR has more to do with obfuscation, rationalization, and hypocrisy.

In one of these interviews, with a Boston radio station, I was paired with Tom McGarity, an author and professor at the University of Texas School of Law. He is also president of the Center for Progressive Regulation.

In his most recent book, Sophisticated Sabotage: The Intellectual Games Used to Subvert Responsible Regulation, McGarity describes what he views as the deceptive tactics some companies use to influence the regulatory environment by employing questionable risk assessment and economic models that favor their positions. He has written other books that explore efforts to undermine the impact of OSHA and EPA regulations.

In our joint interview, McGarity called into question the practice employed over the years by companies and PR firms to create "front" organizations pretending to be independent boards of experts on controversial subjects. As his most potent example, he used the well-catalogued tactics employed by many tobacco companies with the help of their PR firms to use pseudo-science to try and minimize the dangers of smoking, long after they knew these dangers were real.

He pointed me and radio listeners to websites on which the damning evidence documenting these practices is portrayed in unyielding detail.

In response, I noted that having lost my father to cancer and my mother to emphysema (both were smokers) I was not going to defend tobacco companies, their firms, or the tactics he described. I noted that the Page Principles are based on truth-telling and on the conscientious actions of many in our profession and in the business world in general to do the right thing for employees, customers, and shareholders alike.

While none of us profess to be perfect, we do try to counsel our organizations and clients to make good decisions, ones that balance the needs of these different constituents and form the basis for reputation management.

Having said all that, the dialogue with McGarity, and other similar ones with other radio talk-show hosts, left me with some major questions about our profession. How have we earned the reputation we have? Have we done enough to overcome the negative stereotypes about our profession that clearly persist among a significant percentage of the population? Are we destined to be perpetually viewed as empty spinners rather than legitimate business counselors? Can we credibly claim that we are advocates for truth within our organizations?

There are clearly no simple or consistent answers. PR counselors come in many flavors. Some are more comfortable with ambiguity than others. Some view immediate publicity as the ultimate goal, while others take a longer view. Some see nothing wrong with paying experts to advocate a position without disclosing the fact that they are being paid by a stakeholder in the fight. Others feel this practice and others like it undermine credibility. Some have a steady unwavering compass when it comes to matters of veracity, and others...well let's just say that others see things differently.

The Page Principles offer a starting point for stating what we believe in and try to practice as professionals. Tell the truth, prove it with action, listen to the customer, manage for the future, conduct PR as if the whole company depends on it, and remain calm, patient, and good-humored. Not a bad prescription for PR. Not a bad prescription for running a business. Not a bad prescription for living.

  • Tom Martin is president of the Arthur W. Page Society and SVP, corporate relations, ITT Industries.

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